Why Russia Is the Big Winner in Italy’s Election

Even if Giorgia Meloni says she’s sympathetic to Ukraine, the Italian right remains firmly in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s camp.

By , the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at Fiumicino airport in Rome on July 5, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at Fiumicino airport in Rome on July 5, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at Fiumicino airport in Rome on July 5, 2019. ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP via Getty Images

The outcome of Italy’s election is good news for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Sept. 25, Italian voters replaced Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi—one of the most hawkish European leaders on Russia and a leading proponent of a European price cap on gas to curtail the Kremlin’s revenues—with a right-wing coalition made of opportunistic anti-Putin hard-liners (Brothers of Italy), outright Kremlin apologists (the League), and a supposedly moderating and pro-European Union force that just can’t help justifying Russia’s aggression (Forza Italia).

The Brothers of Italy—the bloc’s leading party, which won around 26 percent of the vote—formally supports the Ukrainian resistance against Russia. “We will be guarantors, without ambiguity, of the Italian posture and of the total support for the heroic battle of the Ukrainian people,” promised Giorgia Meloni, the ebullient leader of the winning Brothers of Italy party, who is poised to become Italy’s prime minister. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated Meloni, saying Kyiv is “counting on a fruitful collaboration with the new Italian government.”

The outcome of Italy’s election is good news for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Sept. 25, Italian voters replaced Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi—one of the most hawkish European leaders on Russia and a leading proponent of a European price cap on gas to curtail the Kremlin’s revenues—with a right-wing coalition made of opportunistic anti-Putin hard-liners (Brothers of Italy), outright Kremlin apologists (the League), and a supposedly moderating and pro-European Union force that just can’t help justifying Russia’s aggression (Forza Italia).

The Brothers of Italy—the bloc’s leading party, which won around 26 percent of the vote—formally supports the Ukrainian resistance against Russia. “We will be guarantors, without ambiguity, of the Italian posture and of the total support for the heroic battle of the Ukrainian people,” promised Giorgia Meloni, the ebullient leader of the winning Brothers of Italy party, who is poised to become Italy’s prime minister. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated Meloni, saying Kyiv is “counting on a fruitful collaboration with the new Italian government.”

In a phone call made before Meloni formally assumes the role of prime minister—a questionable choice in terms of protocol—Zelensky emphasized Meloni’s consistent support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion and invited her to visit Kyiv. Tensions within the right-wing camp were evident when, after Russia bombed major Ukrainian cities in retaliation for the Kerch Strait Bridge attack, Meloni pledged to “defend who is fighting for freedom,” whereas Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, remained silent.

Meloni’s resolute anti-Putin stance is a relatively recent addition to the foreign policy of the Brothers of Italy.

However, Meloni’s resolute anti-Putin stance is a relatively recent addition to the foreign policy of the Brothers of Italy, a post-fascist party that historically hosted some anti-U.S. instincts and more recently embraced a worldview in which Russia is the epitome of traditional values standing against noxious globalism blowing in from the West. Meloni used to be friendly with the Kremlin, and she still is with its European acolytes, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In 2015 she asked Italy’s government to suspend the “useless and masochistic” sanctions approved by the EU after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

During the campaign, Meloni went ballistic when Kurt Volker, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO,  in an interview with La Repubblica suggested that the Brothers of Italy might have been among the parties funded by Moscow in a covert operation to meddle abroad. “I can’t prove it,” Volker made clear, but the diplomat’s statement reflects a climate of suspicion about Meloni’s repositioning.

The Brothers of Italy’s ambiguity over Russia was perfectly represented when, on Sept. 30, a roster of nationalist and conservative speakers from Europe and the United States convened in Rome for the Italian Conservatism Conference, an event hosted by think tanks and foundations close to the Brothers of Italy and also attended by party officials. Although Meloni firmly condemned Russia’s sham referendums and chastised Putin’s “neo-imperialist” vision—making sure she labeled it “Soviet-style” to give the whole thing an anti-communist flavor—a few blocks away, Balazs Orban, one of the most trusted officials in Hungary’s illiberal democracy, declared on stage that he “was very concerned about sanctions against Russia.” The crowd cheered approvingly.

Some Brothers of Italy officials are still conflicted over supporting Ukraine. For instance, Meloni campaigned with Maurizio Marrone, a pro-Putin local official in the Piedmont region who, in 2016, opened an unofficial consulate for the Donetsk People’s Republic in Turin, Italy, and was among the international observers suggested by the Kremlin to oversee the bogus ballots on four separatist regions. He ended up not attending as he was busy with Italy’s election campaign. The party never disavowed Marrone nor his pro-Russia activism.

Meloni’s sudden shift from staunch nationalist leader to unlikely torchbearer of Atlanticism looks like a shrewd move to reassure Italy’s international partners and boost her reputation abroad. In a way, Putin has provided the Brothers of Italy with the opportunity to accelerate a cleanup process that has been long in the making. Meloni’s party voted for sending military aid to Kyiv and now is leveraging its electoral force to persuade its reluctant right-wing partners—Salvini’s League party and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia—to adopt a clearer stance on the issue.

Italian media reported that Russian operatives worked behind the scenes with the League—a far-right party that is structurally tied to Putin’s party, United Russia, but tactically supported Draghi’s cabinet before dropping below 9 percent of the vote—to undermine the government that collapsed in July. In the last few years, the League deepened its ties with Putin, and in 2018, a Salvini aide even held secret talks with officials in Moscow in an attempt to get oil money for Italy’s far-right party.

Although the Kremlin machine is notoriously keen on meddling in other countries’ domestic politics, Draghi’s government ultimately collapsed for the usual Italian reasons: irredeemable partisan squabbles, internal infighting, and political leaders who insist on putting polls before the country’s interest. These are precisely the conditions Putin is eager to exploit.

Berlusconi, the scandal-ridden founder of Forza Italia and Putin’s old pal, mildly criticized the Russian president in the aftermath of the Feb. 24 invasion, but he eventually couldn’t help voicing his true beliefs. (The two bonded in the early 2000s, and Berlusconi persuaded him and then-U.S. President George W. Bush to sign the NATO-Russia Council protocol in 2002, which in retrospect probably marks the highest point in relations between Russia and the West in the post-Cold War era.)

“I believe Europe must make a common proposal for peace trying to get the Ukrainians to accept Putin’s demands,” Berlusconi said in May, warning against EU sanctions that could imperil Italy’s access to Russian gas. In an interview just days before the election, he said Russia’s invasion was “pushed by the Russian population” and the plan to “replace Zelensky’s government with a government of decent people” was hijacked by the “unexpected and unpredictable resistance from the Ukrainian troops, who were then fed with weapons of all kinds.”

The increase in energy prices was a major theme of the campaign, and the new government will have to deal with one of the toughest winters in recent decades. Italy’s energy agency estimates that electricity and gas bills will rise by 60 percent in the last quarter of the year, which combined with rising inflation sets the scene for a deep crisis in manufacturing and social unrest. Putin’s propaganda machine did not miss the opportunity to reinforce the idea that EU sanctions against Russia are ultimately to blame for the price increase for consumers, amplifying on social media messages from sanctions-skeptic political leaders like Salvini.

One thing is for sure: Putin savored the fall of Draghi, given that he was a towering figure in the European technocratic elite and a thorn in his side. Appointed in February 2021 with the ludicrous task of saving Italy from itself, the former president of the European Central Bank led a national unity government that took a muscular stance on Ukraine and called for stronger EU sanctions against Moscow.

The prime minister worked tirelessly with international partners to bring down Italy’s dependence on Russian gas from 40 percent to 25 percent, and set the conditions to secure enough supplies for the upcoming winter, Bloomberg reported. He was also the first leader of a major European country to support Kyiv’s bid for EU membership, and he successfully employed his stellar reputation to bring the leaders of France and Germany on his side, overcoming their initial caution. That was more than enough to draw Putin’s ire. Draghi’s sudden downfall is yet more proof of Italy’s volatile political environment, where the most principled stance can be easily reversed to accommodate the electoral calculations of the moment.

The Kremlin must be now enjoying the spectacle of a major EU country struggling to deal with its internal conflicts regarding Russia.

The Kremlin must be now enjoying the spectacle of a major EU country struggling to deal with its internal conflicts regarding Russia. Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said the “United States are imposing [Italy] measures that will destroy the country,” hoping that the new government in Rome won’t be “subservient to the interests of the United States.” Zakharova’s concerns mirrored a critique the League voiced during the campaign.

After all, the roots of the conflict within the turbulent majority that eventually threw Draghi under the bus was centered on the war in Ukraine. The Five Star Movement, once a populist party that ran on an anti-corruption platform and over the years morphed into an unidentified political object, crumbled over military aid for Ukrainians; the hardcore section of the party proudly hosts long-time critics of U.S. imperialism, NATO skeptics, admirers of China’s regime, and even outright Putin apologists.

Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the Five Star Movement and Italy’s former prime minister, managed to get more than 15 percent of the vote—faring much better than expected—and now is reinventing himself as the voice of the pacifists’ demands. In an interview with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, he launched a “rally for peace” that would gather the heterogeneous forces that stand for negotiating a cease-fire, even if that implies some territorial concessions for Ukraine. Conte hopes also to appeal to segments of the Catholic electorate, following Pope Francis’s recent appeal to Putin to stop Russia’s aggression and to Zelensky “to be open to serious proposals for peace.”

The Five Star Movement is now out of government, but the League and Forza Italia are also full of pro-Russia legislators. A resolute pro-Ukraine position is increasingly at odds with the public mood in Italy. A slight majority of Italians thinks Russia is responsible for the war, but an impressive 27 percent think that Ukraine, the EU, or the United States is to blame for it, according to a poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. When asked which country is the biggest obstacle to peace between Russia and Ukraine, 35 percent of Italians chose Ukraine, the EU, or the United States, the largest proportion among the countries polled.

A throng of analysts sympathetic to Putin and straight Kremlin officials were systematically given free airtime for months on Italian TV.

Italy’s indulgent attitude toward Russia was also shaped by the massive media presence of Kremlin propagandists and Putin-friendly pundits after the invasion. Matteo Pugliese, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, explained in detail how a throng of analysts sympathetic to Putin and straight Kremlin officials were systematically given free airtime for months on Italian TV. Interestingly, the channel that mostly hosted propaganda peddlers is Rete 4, part of Berlusconi’s media conglomerate and a major go-to news source for right-wing viewers.

According to a report by Ipsos, six months after the invasion, support for Ukraine among Italians shrank to less than 50 percent and a third of the population believed NATO was a threat to Russia. Many are concerned about how sanctions will affect an economy that is bound to face a two-year recession should Russian gas supplies be halted, according to the Bank of Italy. No coalition hoping to form a stable government can overlook these trends.

Meloni is now engaged in tough negotiations with her allies to form a cabinet that will balance the diverging demands within the conservative coalition and, at the same time, may reassure Italy’s international partners. But the Brothers of Italy will have to plan a strategy to face a social crisis that is brewing under the surface. When rising energy costs and potential shortages hit the very people she pledged to defend from globalist elites and financial speculators, she will have to explain that her unreserved support for Ukraine was the right course of action. Or else, the Putin-friendly parts of her coalition will have an opportunity to force her onto their side.

Mattia Ferraresi is the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani. Twitter: @mattiaferraresi

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